Ahmed and Rahid (by Nancy Chapple)

Ahmed is originally from Algeria, and has the passport to show it. He received a fine education there as a civil engineer. That’s clear when you see him take a pen to describe how two parts of a mechanism fit together, or watch him expound on the details of what has happened to him: a fine-spoken man in Arabic, French and English. But he has fallen on hard times, bouncing around from one European country to the next, living on the edge. He’s lived in France, then in Sweden for quite a long time. The last time he was in Germany he ended up in a small town in Brandenburg, though not for long enough to learn German. Wherever he goes, he’s “tolerated” by the government, neither deported nor supported.

Rahid has an Algerian father and a German mother. His mother thought highly of his father for several months. He then took off to another woman, leaving her with a small baby, but continued to drop by now and then to ensure that Rahid was aware of his heritage. Rahid attended German schools for 10 years, speaks perfect German. But he’s not interested in doing an apprenticeship and then taking on a low-paid job at a gas station or filling shelves at a supermarket. And besides, his Arabic is pretty good. There are lots of ways to earn easy money if you just keep your eyes open.

Rahid is a well-kempt young man around 25, body posture alternately welcoming and threatening. He knows that to keep your gang together, you have to do favors for people but not hesitate to do violence when necessary. Power comes if you’re the one who determines when to act how, making others cater to you.

Through certain channels for north Africans in Berlin, Rahid has learned that Ahmed is in town and down on his luck. A guy like that – not officially registered and awfully needy – can be quite useful, so he has decided to keep him warm.

One Monday noon Ahmed was walking on the Alexanderplatz, nothing much going on, when he received a call from Rahid on his cell phone. Ahmed has of course no steady work. Rahid has been in the habit of slipping Ahmed 20 or even 40 Euros now and then, so Ahmed feels he has no choice but to take the subway down to Hermannplatz and see what’s on. Maybe a way to earn a few bills unloading a truck or carrying furniture? He travels there with a Tunisian friend.

Even on a sunny Monday afternoon in late spring, Hermannplatz in Neukölln can look pretty unappealing. Downright grubby, actually. It’s always populated by a colorful, lively mix of people, often what the Germans call “fellow citizens”, not in possession of a German passport, often of Turkish or Arabic descent. Hermannplatz is a marketplace – of the formal variety two days a week, and informally most any time of any day. Someone’s always looking to sell something to you, cheap and fast. No sales tax, no receipt. Germans are also to be found at the square, standing around plastic tables at the hot-dog stall, leaning on its sticky surface and drinking cheap beer. Two or three scruffy men are usually standing together, characters who’ve spent decades on the fringe of society.

The “foreigners” seem much more enterprising, always on the make. Eyes alert and awake, cell phones to their ears. They probably have to be to survive.

“Hey Ahmed, we’re over here. With the guys—ˮ Rahid calls to him in Arabic, standing near the exit from the subway to steer him over towards Sonnenallee.

Ahmed’s smile is tentative. He walks slightly stooped. Were he to stand proud, he’d be a tall, even good-looking man. Maybe he’s always been like this – so well brought up at home by his mother and grandmother that he’s always uncomfortable in the jostling rivalry of groups of young men.

“Hey man, I’ve got a great gig for you. An easy way to earn a hundred. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Rahid may seem to be speaking only to Ahmed, but the two other guys from his gang are listening carefully.

“All I need you to do is take the train out to Spandau, pick up a package and bring it back to me. Easy money, huh?” He switches to a wheedling tone: “The cops don’t know you; you don’t have any criminal record. Even if you do get caught, they’ll definitely let you off easy. And actually – the whole system’s corrupt. You just need to make sure you get a good lawyer. They caught me with a big quantity, but only kept me in there for 15 days. My lawyer got me off in a snap.”

“But what’s in the package, Rahid? I told you I won’t have anything to do with drugs. I’m not that kind of man. I’m an educated man, an engineer. I don’t believe in that kind of work!”

Rahid switches once again, his tone more threatening: “What I’m hearing you say is that you’re not man enough to ride the subway out to the last stop in the west. I’ve got guys doing similar jobs for me – German guys, actually – who are exposed to much more danger. Imagine you went all the way to Frankfurt or Hamburg with a package – that’s what Mohammad here does for me! He’s done it twice now!”

Ahmed continued to protest, “I don’t do that kind of work. I don’t believe in it.”

“This is not a big deal. Not for Mohammad, not for the German guys.”

All the while, Ahmed’s friend stays in the background. Rahid makes it clear with his body language that this is to be a tete-a-tete, and that no one else needs to be close by. Suddenly he pulls a cheap orange cutter knife out of the right-hand side pocket of his cargo pants, and shouting, “You’re dishonouring me! You’re disrespecting my work! I can’t stand for that,” he plunges the knife into Ahmed’s left shoulder. After thrusting it in, he moves it forcefully downwards in a diagonal cut. For Ahmed it feels like a sudden, deep electric shock. He yells out in pain. Rahid removes the knife and plunges it into Ahmed again, this time into his left lower arm. “You won’t forget this day in your entire life!” he hisses at him.

It’s mid-afternoon, and the corner of Sonnenallee and Reuterstraße is far from empty. Passersby start to gather round; Ahmed’s friend takes a few steps forward. At first, no one takes any action, just drawn to the shouts and the blood.

When Rahid pulls the knife out a second time, seemingly the only thing on his mind cutting Ahmed yet again, Ahmed gathers his remaining strength, turned his uninjured shoulder towards Rahid, who was quite a bit shorter, and tackles him. Both tumble to the ground. Now, finally, a couple men pull them apart. Ahmed feels greatly weakened by the loss of blood. On the edge of his vision, he notices a traditionally dressed woman in a long white dress calling out a prayer to Allah in a lamenting tone. Rahid, who has not been injured, stands up quickly, wanting to regain his dignity, carefully brushing the dirt from the ground off his trousers and straightening his shirt. To Ahmed’s surprise, he does not run away, does not seem to think he has any retribution to fear nor anything to be ashamed of. He simply walks back up Sonnenallee towards Hermannplatz.

Ahmed’s friend takes off his T-shirt and makes a makeshift tourniquet around his left arm. He also asks a girl standing close by to call an ambulance. The blood is flowing fast and heavy. Ahmed feels weak, dizzy. He wants to lie down and hug his limbs close to his body, but his friend keeps talking to him, pleading with him to stay awake, stay conscious.

I met Ahmed at the police station, where I was called in to act as interpreter when he gave his witness statement. Below his lightweight beige linen shirt, his shoulder and arm were bound in many layers of gauze. With huge, piercing dark brown eyes, he kept trying to establish eye contact with me. The two cops were more concerned with getting his statement formulated correctly in the computer. And anyway: who knows how many stories like his they hear in a week?

“I want to make sure Rahid is brought to justice,” he stated firmly. “He claimed I was too much of a coward to go to the cops. But I’m here. I wish for justice to be done!” In response to their question, he said: “Yes, I would recognize him again.”

Following the good hour spent documenting his statement, the cop, Ahmed and I walked down the stairs together. I was torn up inside by Ahmed’s story. As Ahmed and I left the building together, I said, “Hey, well, umm – good luck!” A good head taller than me, he smiled a sad smile in his slightly stooped, well-bred manner, nodded and turned to walk in the opposite direction.

I have no idea whether Ahmed is still in the country. Or whether the police have made an effort to bring in Rahid for questioning.

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